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Bernadeia Johnson

Bernadeia Johnson

Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools

Born: Selma, AL, United States
Heritage: African American

Bernadeia Johnson

Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools

My name is Bernedia Haletha Lundy Johnson. And I’ll tell you the significance of that later. And I was born in November 12, 1959. I’m 53 years old and I was born in Selma, Alabama, historic Selma, Alabama.

It’s a small town with a big history. I would say that, ah, my…I grew up in a place where family was very important. I grew up in a home with my great-grandmother and relatives; we all lived in the same home. That was really important.

One of my favorite things to do was to go to Sunday school on Sundays and go to like the ah…youth church on Sunday afternoons. I loved listening to Billy Graham on TV on Thursday nights.

You could only get two channels in Selma so it was The Dean Martin Show and Billy Graham. So I enjoyed reading the Bible and going to church and it was an important part of my life.

My great-grandmother never got a high school degree. She lived to learn…she took classes to get her high school diploma, it’s called like a GED. But my grandmother who I’ve always had a lot of respect for and loved dearly—we even used to dress alike—was a principal in the Minneapolis Public Schools. She was probably one of the first African American principals in the Minneapolis Public Schools. She’s now 99 years old. She was very influential in my life.

I had the great opportunity of growing up in Selma and experiencing the South in a way that I’ll share with you. But I also had the opportunity during that time, because my grandmother lived in Minneapolis, to live to Minneapolis as a child.

So I say that I was kind of bi-cultural because I had the Southern culture and the Northern culture.

I always—when I was a little girl—loved reading. I believed that these publishers started this rule that you had to be 18 years old or have an adult signature on it because I used to order books and my mom would get mad and she’s say, “I’m not paying for them.” But I was a voracious reader, loved reading Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, these are books that were like detective title books back in the day so I loved reading.

Always thought that I would do something with medicine or science ‘cause I loved kinda making experiments and concocting stuff. Though I never really pursued that.

I loved music. Didn’t sing a lot but played the clarinet and played it from the 4th grade through high school. Had a music scholarship to college. Was the first-chair clarinet player which means I was the best clarinet player in the high school. So which is a great thing for me because it got me a music scholarship.

So I loved doing well in school so much that so that I used to calculate my GPA. I used to…I used to write down this class—A, I mean, I used to kinda…just kinda name it. I would own it, say that I’m gonna get As in these classes and I knew what my grades would be ‘cause they were really important to me.

Education was important to my family. My mom was a teacher. My grandma, as I said, was a principal so she was a teacher, too. My grandmother was the first one in her family to go to high school and college. My grandmother has a doctorate degree. As I told you, she’s ninety-nine years old.

I always felt that an education was important. The great thing about growing up in Selma is that you get a chance to really be embraced by a whole community. If we were naughty—and sometimes I was—I would, my sister and I would walk down the street, the neighbors would be sitting on the porch and sometimes we’d speak to them. They were older people and they were kinda like, you know, kinda like they’d frown and growl at us, but we wouldn’t speak back.

So one day we said, we’re not speaking to them neither. They won’t speak to us, why would we speak to them? We got home and my mom already knew that we’d been disrespectful and hadn’t spoken to the neighbors and so we got in trouble for that.

My mom’s like, I don’t care if nobody every speak to you, you’re supposed to speak to them so…that was something that I was brought up being respectful of people, of adults and other folks.

I think the only time I probably got in trouble when it was kinda physical was ah…someone who told a story—see, I couldn’t even say the word “lie” because that was not proper to say the word, “lie,” when I was a child.

Somebody told a story on my sister and I didn’t like it ‘cause I thought my sister would never do what this person said. So I got mad and I approached this person and I said, “Why would you tell this story on my sister?” And she kinda snapped back at me—I don’t even know if that’s even a word anymore.

So I got mad at her and then I pushed her and I couldn’t believe I did that. I mean, we didn’t really fight, but it was the first time I’d ever confronted someone physically and then I never did it again. It happened to be a neighbor and it was really to defend my sister.

I have a sister who’s 13 months younger than I am and I have a brother who’s 13 years younger than I am.

My sister works in a school district out in Burnsville and my brother’s a firefighter for the Minneapolis City of Minneapolis. And we all grew up together.

My sister has a beautiful voice and she’s the Jetta Jackson of the family. You know, she dresses kinda funky in leather and etcetera. I’m the plain person in the family. And my brother’s kinda like buff—you know—firefighter, you gotta be buff to carry those hoses.

So that’s the only kind of altercation I had. I never got in trouble in school. I was very shy, very much an introvert. If you looked at me, I would cry because I didn’t want people to draw attention to me. So that was another thing that I had to kind of get over. You know, to be in this job.

I loved school and I grew up in a community—Selma was very segregated so initially I went to a Lutheran School. Then when I got in fifth grade, they started to integrate schools. And when they integrated the schools, my sister and I went to the White school.

So my mom paid for a cab to drive us there ‘cause there were no school busses or Metro Transit where I grew up; it was just a small community. That was the first time I’d ever really been around a white person.

Selma was totally black and white so you didn’t have different ethnicities and races. The interesting thing about that experience is that when I went to the all-black school, it was the students that lived in my community. And when I went to the integrated school, my sister and I were the first black students to probably integrate the school and we were sitting alongside white students.

I’d never…I’d never interacted with those white students outside of the school. It was only in the school. So we’d sit next to each other in school, do our course work, and we had a good relationship, but when school was over, they went to their community and we went to our community and we never saw each other outside of the school house.

White people and black people didn’t live next to each other. We lived in the black community and then white people lived in the white community and there was never any interaction with each other.

I would say my uncle who was my grandmother’s brother, was involved in the civil rights work in some ways. He was called, what was later called, The Courageous Eight. There were eight individuals in Selma, Alabama who helped register people to vote and they risked their lives to do that.

So if you look up The Courageous Eight, Ulysses Blackmon was my uncle. So he’s a part of the Courageous Eight. He did that at the risk for his life and his family. So my family’s always been involved that way.

One of the interesting things for me to grow up in Selma, Alabama, my family tried to protect us a lot from what was the ugliness of what was going on in the city, quite frankly. So I can’t say that I experienced any overt racism or the ways that people were treated like they were different or other-than.

I would say my husband who’s three years older than I am, his parents wouldn’t even take him into town to buy shoes. He remembers his mother putting his foot on a piece of paper and tracing an outline of his foot and going into town and buying his shoes because she didn’t want him to experience the ugliness of what’s going on in the city.

I think that families tried to protect their children from what was going on and didn’t want them to experience what they were experiencing. And that’s what parents do. They always try to make things better for their kids and make sure they don’t have some of the experiences.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve missed out on something, not that I wanted to be treated differently. But in some ways, I wish I had experienced more of that.

I will tell you a story that I felt today that’s disturbing, it was disturbing to me. My sister and I were fortunate. My grandmother, as I said, lived in Minneapolis. And it was interesting. We envied our cousins ‘cause they went to the country. And what that means, in rural areas where they had maybe pigs and chickens and stuff, my sister and I were like “Oh!! We’ve gotta go to Minneapolis and they’re going to the country.”

You know, you always want something somebody else has? And we thought it would be just great. I’d read Charlotte’s Web and I knew the pigs would be pink and cute and smell good, at least, that’s the way they looked in Charlotte’s Web.

So we would get on the airplane and fly to Minneapolis. My cousins had never been on airplane or been outside the city of Selma except to go to the country and here we are wanting to go to the country.

So we finally got a chance to go to the country and it stinks and it’s just awful and they had outhouses so they didn’t have restrooms in the homes. You had to go outside to go to the bathroom. So it wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be.

But I would say during that time there were very few people who were flying probably from Selma at that time. We couldn’t fly from Selma, we had to go to Montgomery. And probably very few people flying, especially black folks during that time.

My mom would dress us up in our Easter outfit and we’d get on the plane and fly. I’ll never forget, we have back from our summer vacation and the teachers always asked, “What did you do this summer?”

So my sister said, Well, we got on a plane and we flew to Minneapolis. And the teacher called my mom and said, Donna’s telling stories. She’s making up stories and she said that she’s been on an airplane and she’s saying that she’s been to Minnesota. The teacher could not believe that a little black girl could have gone.

That was so disappointing to me, it just said to me, it reminds me of the fact of how important expectations are and how people you know believe something about what your experience can be, your lived-experience. And I just believe how important it is that we don’t pigeon-hole people and stereotype them and say that it’s not possible that a little black girl got on the plane and flew to Minnesota. That s story’s that stuck with me for years, quite frankly.

And it reminds me of my job as superintendent how important it is that we don’t put people in boxes. So that was our Selma to Minneapolis story.

And I’ll never forget, we were downtown and there was a Asian woman walking through—what was stores…Albrecht’s, or one of those stores—and my grandmother and my sister was pointing to her because we had never seen anybody who wasn’t black or white. And that was our first experience seeing someone who was different, who wasn’t black or who wasn’t white.

And my grandmother stopped the lady ‘cause my sister was kinda pointing, Look at her. And my grandmother asked the lady to come over and she explained that we’re from Alabama and said to the lady that my sister and I had never seen anyone who was different, who wasn’t black or white.

And the lady was very gracious. And I think my grandmother handled it very well because kids do that all the time. When they see someone that looks different, whether it’s a disability or a skin color difference or the clothes you wear, if it’s different, kids point.

And I think…no, I know it’s an opportunity for families to education their children about different people. And so instead of being fearful of it, it’s a great opportunity.

So those are my interactions. The reason I give my whole name Haletha, Bernadia Haletha…my mom’s name was Bernice and so she wanted…I was the first child, I was dear to her, so she named me Bernadia. My grandmother’s name is Halle and my dad’s mom’s name was Heddie so my mom named me Haletha. And my maiden name is Lundy. And I married a man with the last name of Johnson so that’s how I got that last name.

So I went to college. I went to a historically black college. I went to Alabama A&M University. I didn’t major in music. As I said, I had a scholarship in music so I played in the marching band. If you’ve ever seen a drum-line, I was in the band like that where you had to learn a piece of music every week. The people came to see the band perform. They didn’t come to see the football team.

Because, you know, the football was nothing. It was really about seeing the band perform. And so I was in a marching band like that where we had to learn a song and the majorettes were the big deal and the drum majors could bend back and do all this kinda crazy stuff.

So my college experience was interesting that I was in a segregated school as a child. In fifth grade I was integrated and then I chose a college that was all-black. So I don’t believe there was one white student on campus until I was a senior in college.

I’ll tell you about a big fight. I’m gonna go back to high school. A big fight. I’d never…my mom never gave me a curfew and I’ll never forget, my grandma was visiting from Minneapolis and I was in high school and my grandma’s like, “Well, what time is your curfew?” And I said, “Curfew??” You know, I don’t know what you talkin’ about.

And it was the biggest fight my mom and I ever had. The next day I flew back to Minneapolis with my grandmother. I told them I was just like, I’m getting outta here, I’m getting outta here. But Selma wasn’t a place where you can get into a lot of trouble because there wasn’t a lot going on for youth, which is sad.

It was, you know, you…the band was my outlet so Friday nights I played in the football game. I was, you know, so that was what I did. I had close girlfriends that we hung out with. We did naughty stuff like we would call people and say, “Is your refrigerator running? You better go catch it.” We would call people up on the phone.

I mean, that was the kind of prank, kind of fun stuff we did. it was bad. We would do stuff like that and ah, I learned how to skate on the sidewalk, rollerblade, not ice skate. I played marbles, which is great. You guys don’t even know what marbles are, do you. Oh, you do?

Oh, I could pop a marble. I used to…you know, Tiger’s Eye, I used to do all that stuff. Jump rope. Everything that kids do, I did. And I loved Barbie dolls. So I used to collect Barbie and Ken dolls and do that kind of stuff.

I was basically a good child. I mean, and um…never got into any trouble. Except for one time. I forgot about this. My band director made me so mad. He used take Tums. He would take Tums as he was rubbing his stomach so he would get us all anxious about the concert. One day, I said, I wish they would stop selling Tums so he could die, which is totally inappropriate. Don’t repeat that kind of behavior.

And I had to go back and apologize but I had my fingers crossed behind my back. That’s probably the naughtiest thing that I’ve done in high school.

And I had a boyfriend who I thought was a hunk, quite frankly. He was a football player. You don’t wanna know about all that, though. [chuckles] No, he was a hunk and you know big neck like this ‘cause he lifts weights, that type of thing.

So, let me get back to college. College, I…when you get a scholarship, you gotta do what people tell you to do so I had to be in band rehearsals. It was just like you were on a football team. We had to work-out and do all these calisthenics. And like I said, you had to learn songs every week to perform.

I was in the Marching Band, the Concert Band. I had to take clarinet lessons because I was on scholarship. But that’s really important. If you can get a scholarship, I didn’t have to pay for my books, I didn’t have to pay tuition. I didn’t have to pay for room and board. And by the way, it was only a thousand dollars a semester back in that day.

When I was working, yeah, when I was in college, I worked at McDonalds over in north Minneapolis. So I served people hamburgers and French fries and it was a great job to have. All the money I made, I got to take home, take to school. My parents and grandma never asked me…my grandma paid for my flight back and forth to school so I used all my money to go out to Red Lobster when I wanted to when I was in college. And that type of thing.

I just hung out. I joined a sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. That’s right! I joined a sorority in 1979. I was number 13 on a line of 25. It was an interesting time where you had these big sisters who were pledging you, you have to learn all the history of the sorority. And learn all the songs in the sorority and then there’s a little bit of um…blow out the light bulb, you go pledge or something. Things like that.

You know, things that ah…I don’t know. They were kind of silly now when you look back on it. A little harassment and hazing, you know. It was interesting, but I thought it was important to be a part of a sisterhood of black female organization that was a service organization. So I thought that was important.

We did things like tutor and we did things in the community. I majored in speech pathology for speech impediments and I did that in college. My grandmother gave me her Electric Two-Twenty-five, what they call a deuce and a quarter. And I got a chance to take that to school and hang out.

That’s where I met my husband who I’m now married to. I graduated with honors from college and decided to move to Minneapolis to live for a time and I moved here and worked for First Bank systems. I worked for First Bank systems, which is now US Banks. I started out as a teller and I kept moving my way up, general ledger accountant. And then I became a financial analyst. And I worked for them for 19…ooo, 19…I think I started in ’79 when I was still in college, but I worked for them ‘til 1991 when they were doing downsizing, which means they were cutting departments.

My whole department got cut. It was probably the first job where I was told to go and lay off a bunch of people so I went and laid off my whole department. People reported to me, I just said, the company’s downsizing so all your jobs are cut.

The next day I went into my office, they had a corrugated box and I got laid off! So they let me tell all the people they were laying off and then they laid me off. And they just said, Take your mug and take the pictures of your kids and they walked me out and they took my badge. ‘Cause this is a bank so you gotta have security. You can’t just say, you don’t have a job and you can work until June. They have to walk you out of the building.

I think that’s the first time I started to have white friends, friends…people whose houses I would go over. Remember I went to school with white students, but never had any relationship with them so here I worked with white folks and then like…we would go to each other’s houses, go out to eat and have fun together. So that was my first experience of interacting with someone from another race in a real way is what I mean.

So I worked for First Bank. And then after they did that downsizing, I ended up getting a job at a place called St. Paul Bank for Co-ops. It was the place that lent money to farmers. That was an interesting experience.

You know, getting in there and getting Bernadia right, they called me everything…Bernadine, what’s your name? Where you from gal? You know, they just couldn’t get with it so it was a different experience.

So I left there and enter a program that was ah…a program that the Minneapolis Public Schools and St. Paul Public Schools created called The Collaborative Urban Educator Program which is called Cue.

It’s supposed to bring people from under-represented populations into teaching. So I went through an alternative licensure program as a teacher and it was at St. Thomas, University of St. Thomas.

Then I went on to finish my Masters at St. Thomas and I got married somewhere in there and that was in 1982, I got married.

So then I taught in St. Paul for five years and had an interesting experience there. I felt like um…my first experience on the staff was I was in a meeting and there was a teacher passing out some papers and I reached for the paper and she said, “This is not for EAs, this is for teachers.” And I said, “Well, I am a teacher.” So that was an interesting experience. She just looked at me.

You know, I didn’t work at the school before, so I was new and she looked at me and assumed I couldn’t have been a teacher, I had to be an educational assistant. Well, I was the first teacher of color on that staff.

I gained some great relationships with staff, but it was just an assumption based on the color of my skin about who I was and what position I could be in. I had a fifth grade classroom and I was overwhelmed. My mentor-teacher was like all the way down the hall.

I’ll never forget, there was an African American boy who was in another teacher’s classroom who was having so many problems. And this teacher who was white talked the principal into me taking this student. I just felt like it was unfair, that the black teacher, you know, just because I was black I should take the black student.

I said, every teacher should be able to address the students in the classroom. Now I’m glad I took that student and that teacher and I are now close friends to this day, but at first I was insulted by it and thought that it was presumptuous that to think that because I was black, I should have the black students.

It was just an interesting thing. And like I said, she was one of the…was one of my closest friends. I’ll never forget, one time I was sick…just started being around a lot of students because I was teaching, I had such a sore throat and I have a fever. I could tell, I was sick as a dog.

I went to the principal, I didn’t call in sick, I said, I am so sick, I have to go home. And she’s like, we don’t have anybody to cover your class, you can’t go. And I’m like, Really? So I went back down to my room and the kids were just perfect, they read. I had to put my head down. This teacher came into my room, she said, Get your stuff and go home. And I’m like, Well, the principal said…she said, Get your stuff and go home.

So I packed up my stuff and I went home. Well, I went to the Urgent Care and I had strep and no, I didn’t take the shot ‘cause I don’t like needles. So I took the pill and it worked out. The teacher split up all my students and it was just really a great collaborative relationship that I established with the teachers in the building. And like I said, to this day.

But there was also this sense from some folks that I’d found some backdoor way into teaching and that I wasn’t qualified to teach and I shouldn’t have been there.

So in 1995, I tried out to become a national board certified teacher and I became nationally board certified. That was my way of trying to…to get the chops or to get the certification and recognition I deserved for being in a classroom even though I’d gone through an alternative program.

And though my kids were doing well, socially, emotionally, and academically, I still felt like well, I needed to prove something to myself. So I did that and then I had Brandon, who I call Brandy, by the way.

My son Brandon is 27 and my daughter Brianna just turned 25 last week. So I’m pretty old. And I have a grand-puppy. I have a puppy my daughter brought home. It’s a teacup Chihuahua. She doesn’t look like a Chihuahua, her name is Remy, Remington. We call her Remy for short. She looks like a kitten ‘cause she has white socks on her feet.

I used to live over in North Minneapolis for a long time. I could keep going so I’ll keep going. I was going to tell somethings that I think are interesting. The other person who’s been an influence in my life is my grandfather. He’s a 105 this year. He’s a…he’s a…he’s a very strong…minister, he’s very strong spiritually. He’s just solid.

My family’s always taught me to be just kind of spiritual and grounded. So I ended up leaving St. Paul and got recruited to Minneapolis and was a principal of a school over in North Minneapolis, Halls School. And I stayed there for about four years and then I went to Memphis, Tennessee and then came back here as a chief academic officer.

And then became superintendent three years after that. And I would say that there are lots of challenges to all levels of work and education and I hope you guys go into it!

So I went and got my Masters, as I said, and then went and worked on my doctorate—my PhD. So I finished that. So all the while I was working, I was in school and trying to raise two children who played in hockey and basketball and trumpet and violin and everything else you can imagine that you guys do.

They were pretty easy to raise except my daughter, you know, who has a smart mouth. But otherwise, they were pretty good kids. See, I’m still calling them kids. ‘Cause they’re at home, which I love, by the way. I never thought I would, but I love having them back home. And my grand-puppy, Remy who’s now climbing the stairs.

I’m gonna get a baby book for her so I can keep up with her milestones. Crazy, I know, it’s crazy.

Couple things I’ve done that have been fun since I’ve had this job is one is all the 3rd graders get invited to Orchestral Hall so I got a chance to do Tubby-the-Tuba. I read Tubby-the-Tuba and sang with the Minnesota Orchestra, which is really pretty fantastic.

Sometimes it’s fun to do interviews on TV and sometimes not so fun.

I went to Mexico this year and I’ve gone now for three years and I really enjoy it and can’t wait to get back next year. So those are the things I do. Friday nights are my favorite nights to get home, pull my jewelry off and watch news on TV.

I still read a lot, very much enjoy that. I don’t play my clarinet as much, I used to go, when I visited schools, I would take my mouthpiece with me and if I walked into a band room, I would play. It’s gotten me in trouble because now they’re…South High still has asked me to come and play with them and just the ah, the music teacher gave me the music and it’s so complicated I’m like, No, I can’t do that. I haven’t played in a while.